We live in a surveillance society

By Uwe Buermann, September 2016

A thirteen-year-old girl decides to send a naked photo of herself to her boyfriend. In 1970 that would have meant sending a paper photo by post and as long as his mother did not open the letter there would not have been a problem. Today it means that the picture speeds as a package of data invisibly from sender to recipient. And that it travels across a public space, particularly when it goes via the Internet.

Photo: © Seleneos/photocase.de

And let us assume that the girl makes a typing error and sends the picture to a carnival club instead of her boyfriend … It is not hard to imagine what the consequences would be, or is it? Because it isn’t quite that simple: of course it is obvious that the girl cannot go anywhere anymore without people looking at her in a peculiar way. But the WhatsApp group of the carnival club is also linked through individual member with innumerable other groups, and faster than was ever possible before such a picture can be forwarded with a few clicks to other people and, indeed, whole groups; some people will receive multiple copies of the picture.

So the photo is “out” not just in the girl’s own school but also in all the schools nearby – and not just among the pupils but also among teachers and many parents. For everyone uses the wonderfully practical WhatsApp!

But it does not stop there: the mother of an underage boy from the carnival club who frequently checks his smartphone finds the photo which was sent under a WhatsApp pseudonym. She does not know the thirteen-year-old by sight and has to assume that something suspicious is going on here. So she goes to the police.

And now we have to know the following: if under-sixteen-year-olds are photographed naked this is deemed to be child pornography. Between 16 and 18 the erotic nude is allowed (those are then the photos in Bravo) but not the depiction of sexual intercourse. The distribution of child pornography is, in turn, a crime. So what the thirteen-year old has caused to happen with her harmless nude selfie is that the crime of distribution of child pornography has been committed!

But it does not end there either. We have to know that a SIM card as required by every mobile phone or smartphone can only be used contractually from the age of 16; before that the legal guardians are liable. So whom does the police turn up to arrest for the distribution of child pornography? The father, a conscientious social workers who has great difficulty explaining the incident, which is of course quickly cleared up, to his employer in such a way that no stain remains on him.

Of course this is the story taken to extremes. But it makes two things clear: as soon as we send something with our computer or smartphone we are on the Internet. But the Internet is a public space which, on the one hand, is under total surveillance and, on the other, is subject to the laws which are formulated for the public sphere.

We can of course object that this only applies to what is made publicly available and not to the private conversation between sender and recipient via the Internet. While that may be true as such, we should be under no illusion about the extent of the surveillance and retention which is taken for granted today.

We must understand that every click we make and every word we express via such media is stored. It is our holy cow, our – supposed – privacy, which is called into question. Many adults also find it difficult to change their habits with this in mind. Use Mozilla Firefox and change the homepage from Google to ixquick.de or DuckDuckGo.com, choose the setting which deletes all cookies after every session.

Enter the search term “mobile phone radiation” in Google and then in DuckDuckGo. You will find very different entries; some pages reporting about scientifically verified harm to health caused by mobile phone radiation do not appear in Google at all.

Critics say Google only covers about 40 percent of the total Internet, others say 80 percent; the truth is probably somewhere in between. This, too, is something we should be clear about.

Nowhere to hide on the Internet

But it is not just such selection but also, conversely, how the Internet acts back on us that is relevant. We have been familiar for a long time with the situation in which, when we have searched for or bought a particular product online, we are offered similar products soon after. Only we ourselves, that is to say, the computer or smartphone which we use for surfing. It is called targeted advertising and has been around for some time.

A more recent phenomenon is perhaps that the prices which are shown vary. Not with products where the price is fixed, such a books in Germany, but with low-cost airline tickets for example: if we look for flights between two cities in Europe from an expensive smartphone or, alternatively, an ancient laptop it can happen that there is a difference of several hundred euros! Our monthly income may be taken into account in the offers we receive and their price.

Furthermore, our surfing behaviour can allow conclusions about our mental state. If we are mentally stable, advertising can be pretty useless; if we are unstable it is easy to persuade us to impulse buy. The next step then is not just passively to read the desired mental state but actively to bring it about: here, too, there are tricks and this is something that is being developed.

We should not misunderstand what is going on here: it is not that some Big Brother, or even a team of “intelligence agents” is sitting somewhere spying on our every move, these are purely combinational tricks, mere algorithms, which “mechanically” sift and combine information. It is not an intelligence but pure robotics which stores our data, searches through it and collates it through our intelligent programming, until ultimately whole “sociograms” of each Internet user and their relationships with other people and groups of people are created.

If previously it was still possible to say that these data were restricted to IP addresses, that is a computer interface, and surveillance could be circumvented by changing the IP address, these “good old times” are past.

Given the ever more prevalent fast transmission speeds, what we have said above applies; here every user has a clearly identifiable typing “handwriting” so that we can try to hide as much as we want; after a brief period of typing, every one of us is identifiable on any computer in the world. And every click we make on the Internet, every scroll and its speed and dwell time, from which in turn conclusions can be drawn about the interests of the person scrolling, are registered, assigned and analysed.

This is not some outlandish conspiracy theory but a good one, that is to say, one which is logical: for Google indeed interrogates every user in accordance with up to 15,000 criteria, that is, age, gender, size, taste in music, favourite food and 14,995 others. No human being could possibly process such a quantity of date but a machine can. The machine does not know what it is doing, it just does it.

It combines sets of data with one another and draws logical conclusions just as it has been taught, presents them so that they can take effect, nothing more. It passes on consequences, just as we have programmed it to do, without knowing what it is thereby doing.

No human being can any longer check all of that for correctness but the results are stored and become the property of Google, Facebook and all those to whom the data are sold on.

The NSA can hardly compete with this mass of data; 65 percent of all espionage today is actually economic espionage – but of course economic and political surveillance are closely connected; geopolitics and TTIP and co are impulses in a great sweep which is passing through the world and attempting to make the boundaries of what we human beings are able to do ever narrower.

Anyone who thinks that any of this is an exaggeration should give their eyes a good rub and then they might notice that it really is so. We live today in a surveillance society; the public space in which we act is under the greatest possible surveillance.

We no longer need science fiction to present us with terrifying vistas of human development because, to quote the title of Robert Jungk’s book from 1952: The Future has already started (Die Zukunft hat schon begonnen).

Note: The media scientist Uwe Buermann visited the Waldorf school in Sorsum in November 2015. Jens Göken, father of a former pupil, school librarian and “general contact for cultural matters” at the Sorsum Free Waldorf School, has provided a summary of Buermann’s lectures here.

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